The Library of the Mind


The purge is on. It was triggered in this case by a leak from the garage ceiling that began to soak several stacks of boxes. Inside were files from my university career representing three decades of research and teaching materials.

For me, it’s excruciatingly difficult to throw stuff out. I lament the empty paper towel roll, standing alone, destined for the trash. “Oh you poor little brown roll, you served us so well dispensing all those towels, and now, look! Whatever will become of you?”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. So imagine my pain at pawing through boxes of wet, largely no-longer needed folders containing “my life.”

Remember, not so long ago one’s filing cabinet was the equivalent of Mary Poppins’ magic satchel: whatever you were able to pull out determined how much magic you could bring into your classroom.

Yet much in these folders is obsolete. Take the long lists of slides, complete with call numbers, used to illustrate my lectures. Internet access theoretically has eliminated the very need to sit for hours pulling slides from heavy, compartmentalized drawers and or arranging those pesky slide carousels.

Yet how can I describe the learning that took place during the hours I bent over those very drawers! The fiercest cascade of Google search terms cannot begin to teach what was gained by that process.

I struggle the most over purging boxes labeled Introduction to Graduate Studies. An innocuous-sounding class, this required course was a traditional, trial-by-fire introduction to scholarly work. It poured the rigor of research methodology into the head of young adults who would rather be practicing the violin or conducting symphonies.

The text and model for this course came from an esteemed member of that “greatest generation” of World-War II era scholars, Vincent Duckles (1913-1985). His primary publication—a copiously annotated compendium of research materials—struck fear into everyone required to buy it. We called it simply “Duckles” and it grew fatter and scarier with every edition as the author captured the burgeoning waves of bibliographic research bursting out across the globe after the second World War.

But despite the impossibility of learning everything in Duckles, grappling with it was an absolute key to learning research skills for a new graduate student. It changed one’s understanding of music.

Duckles wrote other things, too. My favorite of his articles is entitled “The Library of the Mind” (1976). Here he set forth the rationale and prescription for establishing a mental picture of the materials in a music library. In a sense, he was encouraging us plant the seeds of scholarship mentally before employing them physically.

As beautiful as his title is, though, I called the process the “shooting hoops” principle. A professional basketball player doesn’t look with his eyes to find the basket. The basket is “there” in the mind and muscles, no matter what his position on the court. Hundreds, even thousands, of baskets shot per day guarantee this result.

Well, research materials can go into a person’s mind that same way. So we began our course with internalizing the systemic design of the library. We did this many ways, including memorizing the Library of Congress call numbers for significant types of materials: scores (the written music), biographies, facsimiles, collected sets and series, music iconography, theoretical writings, and more.

Some of it was easy: M100 for solo instrumental music, M200s for duos, M300s for trios, M400s for quartets, M500s for quintets, all the way to M900s for nonets and M1000 for symphonies.

But it wasn’t all so obvious. Students first had to discover, then explore, and finally internalize materials such as the ML134’s, the Thematic Catalogues. Weighty compendia detailing the works of composers like Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms, thematic catalogues provide detailed information about individual pieces of music available nowhere else.

We also did a lot of old-fashioned legwork, spending hours physically perusing the books, and sometimes even conducting class while standing before the shelves. It was like googling with the hands and feet.

It sounds very old-fashioned now, but it worked. If done even halfway diligently, the student’s mind gradually became a card catalogue of resources. After all, it’s amazing how much information we really can store in our minds. The best analogy I can offer is grocery shopping. “Why do I need this store?” “Where is the catsup?” “Which brand and size should I buy?” “How many avocados do I need?” And even the tiniest questions: “How many grams of sugar are in this yogurt?” In short, “the grocery store of the mind?”

Some of the traditional methodology of music research in the “Library of the Mind” would appear to be replaced by the internet. But I’d be willing to put the old-fashioned skills of students trained in the older methods against those who learn them through today’s lens of digital access.

If I were teaching the course today, I would naturally include the digital resources. But we’d still walk the shelves, pausing, holding, even smelling the books (yes, 18th-century theory volumes smell very different from 19th-century volumes).

And the rigor would remain. Rigor cannot be demoted to an option in research. A quest does not become an easy path to navigate simply by clicking.

Clicking is marvelous, of course, and I do it countless times a day. But as I click, I’m actually envisioning the individual resources in the Library of my Mind, holding them in my hand, searching through them. The rigor that teaches a young person to approach a topic with the right questions must be fueled by frustrating labor, indeed a bit of drudgery. It is hard because, well, it is hard.

None of my musings, though, make it easy to toss out my wet files. But most of them do need to go. The leak was a kind of blessing in that respect. It’s okay, because those professors who trained me did achieve their goal: they planted a library of the mind impervious to mildew, upon which I still build.

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